Film writer Andrew Lampe attended the Melbourne premiere of Joe Cinque’s Consolation on Saturday and penned this review exclusively for the RiotACT. The film, which was shot in Canberra in mid-2015, is based on Helen Garner’s award-winning narrative non-fiction book examining the 1997 killing in Dickson of engineer Joe Cinque by his ANU law student girlfriend Anu Singh – Ms Singh plotted to kill Cinque after a dinner party at their Dickson home. While some of the dinner guests had heard rumours of the plan, none of them warned Joe Cinque, who died of a massive dose of rohypnol and heroin. Ms Singh was later convicted of manslaughter and served four years in prison. Film director/writer Sotiris Dounoukos was an ANU law student at the time of Cinque’s death and has drawn on his own memories of life in the capital in the making of the film.
First-time feature film-maker Sotiris Dounoukos, after highly acclaimed short films including ‘Un Seul corps’, winner of the Toronto Film festival, and co-scriptwriter Matt Rubinstein have taken an understandably narrower approach to the tale of Joe Cinque’s death than author Helen Garner. They have removed Garner as a character and primary entry point into the story, and concentrated instead on the relationship between Cinque and Singh, and especially the immediate events leading up to the 1997 murder. The events of the 1998 and 1999 trials are omitted completely.
The effect of these changes is that without Garner and a focus on the Cinque parents to recreate his memory, the story is no longer a consolation for Joe Cinque. Maria and Nina Cinque do appear with resonance in the film, played by Gia Carides and Tony Nikolakopoulos, but briefly. Instead, the decent and immensely likeable Cinque becomes a deer caught in the headlights who tragically realises too late the homicidal intentions of the woman he loves. The relationship between Singh and Cinque comes to the fore as well that as between Singh and her best friend, Madhavi Rao.
The young principal actors bear the weight of this shift. They are outstanding: Jerome Meyer as the decent, caring and love-struck Joe, Sacha Joseph as the criminally pliable accomplice Madhavi Rao and especially Maggie Naouri as the self-destructive siren at the centre of her own drama. Naouri succeeds particularly in depicting the human side of the killer, which is in contrast to Garner’s take. Singh’s mental disintegration is slow-building and ambiguous. The film’s audience, unlike the courts, receives no definitive answer about the extent of Singh’s mental illness and diminished responsibility. Into this ambiguity, Naouri fully embodies a highly intelligent, narcissistic, needy, capricious yet vulnerable young woman with a very fragile sense of self who possesses a villainous ability to bend everyone around her to her every whim and need, even when those whims are homicidal.
As well as the powerful and brave performances of the largely unheralded cast, credit must be given to cinematographer Simon Chapman who manages to make Canberra look menacing, matching the callous amorality of its characters. The palpable feeling of inexorable dread make the excruciating final act almost unbearable to watch and composer Antonio Gambale in conjunction with editors Angelos Angelidis and Martin Connor contribute to this rising tension as Cinque is drugged and fatally injected.
Dounoukos does not let anyone off the hook and questions the morality of those around Singh, from her doormat accomplice Rao who has her own love attachment to Singh, through to everyone who attended the dinner parties, the fellow law student who shows her how to inject and sourced the fatal heroin, and the junkie who supplied her with the drugs.
Dounoukos makes it clear that those who knew of Singh’s bizarre murder suicide pact could have and should have intervened. This is most vividly depicted at the final dinner party when Singh’s friend Len announces he has something to say but seems to change his mind when Singh shoots him a murderous look. She also manages to shut down another dinner party guest, the one who came the closest to alerting the police and foiling Singh’s plans.
There is no denying Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a powerful film but it has a different power to Garner’s work. While Garner spent the last act bringing Cinque back to life through the vivid recollection of his devoted parents and Garner’s nascent love for him, the film offers very little consolation for Joe as his body is gripped by the valium, rohypnol and finally the heroin that ends his life.
The final frame offers a brief summary of the trial sentences for Singh and Rao over an image of Singh studying for her PhD in criminology while in custody, but there is no explanation about how the psychiatric evidence successfully qualified Singh for diminished responsibility. Where Garner used the trial to rail against the law’s ability to effectively offer excuses for Joe’s murder, the film leaves the viewer to make their own assessments without examining the court processes.
It is difficult for a film to explore all of the complex emotions that can be balanced in a book, particularly a Helen Garner book, but perhaps the film achieves a consolation in its embodiment of Cinque through the strong performance of Myer.
In the end, in death as in life, Singh’s dominating presence punctuates the final scenes and the tragedy of a decent, likeable young life being cut short is surpassed by the less tragic mental disintegration of the woman he adored.
The ambition of Dounoukos and the performances he elicits from his cast mark him as a major Australian talent to watch.